This past Sunday, October 14th, the Church celebrated the canonization of two men, Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Oscar Romero. I would like to offer a reflection on the second of these two men. Though I never met him in person, he has been a man whose life story I have read, meditated upon and been inspired by for over 40 years.
Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was born into an impoverished family on August 17th, 1915, in a remote village of El Salvador. El Salvador is the smallest republic in the Americas, the size of Massa- chusetts, with a population of 5 million. During his lifetime, half of the population lived on less than $10.00 a month. Only 16% of the work force had year-round employment. Half of 1% of all land- owners owned 38% of the arable land, whereas the poorer 91% owned only 23% of the land. Fourteen families had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1932 under a military dictatorship. In 1932, a peasant rebellion rose up against the government to try and redress this social imbalance, untold poverty and starvation arising from it. La Matanza (the slaughter), as it came to be known, brought on the killing of 30,000 campesinos (peasants-usually peasant farmers). Into this world, Oscar Romero was born, and within this world, he was sanctified. His new status as a canonized saint came about by his decision to stand with the poor, oppressed, tortured, murdered peasants and priests of his beloved country.
Twelve years before his murder in 1968, Latin American bishops came together for a conference with the hopes of applying the concepts of the Vatican II Council to the Catholic Church in the Americas, especially Latin America. They met at Medellin, Columbia, and came up with the concept that the Church should have a “preferential option for the poor.” Simply stated, any political, civic or pastoral decision should always first consider its impact upon the poor. Oscar Romero took it upon himself to guide his entire ministerial life around this truth-heroically so in the last three years of his life. These years, 1977-1980, were after he had been elevated to the role of Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.
The Church in El Salvador was experimenting with the creation of small Christian communities in which people would be presented with the concept, new to them, that God is active in their lives now, God is active in history, God wants justice now: it is not something that they have to wait for after death. As a result, the eyes of the poor were opened to the causes of poverty and began to ask for basic needs such as fair wages and land to grow a few crops on.
To the 14 families, closely allied with the military, this was an out- rage and unacceptable. Their response in the past to such insouciance was to imprison and kill such “subversives.” But with the Church and its priests having a much wider influence in educating the poor about their human dignity and human rights, the killing by the government-controlled military increased dramatically.
At first, the government was pleased with the elevation of Romero because he was known as a compliant and conservative man who wouldn’t make waves for the repressive government. However, after the assassination of his good friend Rutillio Grande, a Jesuit
priest, by death squads (primarily, soldiers by day wearing civilian clothes at night to commit the murder and torture of priests, lay ministers, catechists, union organizers), the scales fell off Romero’s eyes and he became a more serious advocate for the poor. The oligarchy’s hatred for him and desire to be rid of him grew with every homily or talk he gave. During these years, posters were scattered throughout the cities, “Be a patriot, kill a priest” and many were tortured, killed and exiled for preaching the Gospel.
For 3 years, amidst daily death threats and attempts on his life, Romero stood firm against the onslaught of the military/ government coalition. Within a few short years, 75,000 Salvador- ans were killed by death squads, mostly tortured in grisly fashion and left in the streets to create more terror amongst the population.
There was some response by groups of Salvadorans organizing militant ways to defend themselves, but these actions were minimal and were directed at soldiers and death squad leaders and not the innocent civilians that were the primary victims of the government forces. Tirelessly, Romero called for an end to the violence from all sectors, but ultimately was ignored. Some of his most virulent detractors were his fellow bishops, with one exception. They went so far as to try and get Pope Paul VI to get rid of him. Romero saw Pope Paul, in person, for support and his words to Romero were, “Courage! You are in charge.”
His end came shortly after two important messages he sent out, one to then President Jimmy Carter asking him to stop sending arms to El Salvador, “They are only killing my people”. The second one was over the radio to the government soldiers a day before he was killed. “We should like the government to take seriously the fact that reforms dyed by so much blood are worth nothing. In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people who have suffered so much and whose laments cry out to heaven, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God, stop the repression!”
This was too much. The right wing press announced where he was going to say Mass the next day, which was in the chapel of a convent. At 6:30 p.m., at the Offertory, while elevating the bread and wine, a lone gunman walked in the chapel and killed him with a single shot to the heart. His friends were to say that this un- finished Eucharist would be completed for him in heaven.
Even in death, Romero was denied peace. At the funeral Mass a few days later, with thousands of Salvadorans in the church and square outside the church, the military opened up with gunfire killing many and creating chaos. His body was hustled away and hurriedly buried. The violence continued for the next 12 years until a truce was established in 1992.
I will close with his own words. “It is the poor who force us to under- stand what is really taking place … The persecution of the church is a result of defending the poor. Our persecution is nothing more nor less than sharing in the destiny of the poor … The poor are the body of Christ today. Through them, he lives on in history.” “If God accepts the sacrifice of my life, my hope is that my blood will be like a seed of liberty and a sign that our hopes will soon become a reality.”
Saint Oscar Romero, pray for us.